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Montage of a Dream Deferred

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In a prefatory note to Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Langston Hughes wrote about his artistic influences, concerns, and aims in the book, which he saw as a single poem rather than as a collection of poems: In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and bebop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like bebop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disctortions of the music of a community in transition.

The volume appears to have sprung from a momentous occasion in his life: his moving into his own home in 1948 after a lifetime of rented or borrowed rooms and houses. (With the royalties from the 1947 musical play Street Scene, on which he had served as lyricist with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice, he had purchased a rowhouse in Harlem.) In September 1948 he wrote to a friend: “I have completed a new book I wrote last week!” Hughes called it “a full book-length poem in five sections,” and characterized it further as “a precedent shattering opus—also could be known as a tour de force.”

If the aggressive discordancies of bebop music as played by musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker shaped the form of the book, its central idea is that of the “dream deferred.” The dream had always been perhaps the central motif in Hughes's poetry, and especially the dream of political and social empowerment for blacks. But Hughes now faced the fact that the hopes that had drawn thousands of blacks to the northern cities had led many of them to disappointment, alienation, and bitterness. Some of these poems depict blacks still able to hope and dream, but the most powerful pieces raise the specter of poverty, violence, and death. In “Harlem,” a dream deferred can “dry up,” or “fester,” or “crust and sugar over—or does it explode?”

At various times witty, sardonic, ironic, documentary, loving, or tragic, the volume touches on virtually every aspect of daily Harlem life, from the prosperous on Sugar Hill to the poorest folk living down below; it touches on the lives of Harlem mothers, daughters, students, ministers, junkies, pimps, police, shop owners, homosexuals, landlords, and tenants; its aim is to render in verse a detailed portrait of the community, which Hughes knew extremely well. Eventually he would take pride in the fact that of all major black writers, he alone still lived in the midst of a typical urban black community.

Despite Hughes's enthusiasm, his longtime publisher, Knopf, rejected the manuscript. The response when it appeared from Henry Holt in 1951 was lukewarm at best. To J. Saunders Redding in the black Pittsburgh Courier, the book probed old emotions and experiences “but they reveal nothing new.” In the New York Times Book Review, Babette Deutsch attacked Hughes's “facile sentimentality,” his “cultivated naivete,” and saw the work revealing “the limitations of folk art.” Nevertheless, the volume ranks among his finest works of art, a major product of his intimate, ongoing engagement with African American life and culture.[See also Raisin in the Sun, A.]


Subjects: Literature

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Langston Hughes (1902—1967) American writer